Sermon: St. Francis – Imitating Christ
October 8th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passage: St. Francis Sunday; John 1:1-4, Genesis 1:20-25, Job 12:7-10
It was the year 1202. A time in history that we now call the Middle Ages or the Medieval time. It was an era that saw a growing money-based economy, growing divides between rich and poor in a system of landowners and peasants who worked the land, cities were growing as people moved in search of work. It was the time of the Crusades, wars rooted in seeking religious control. Much of that sounds awfully familiar, despite the great changes over 800 years!
In the town of Assisi in Italy, a young man named Giovanni Francesco Bernardone, joined the army and marched off to battle. He came from a wealthy family of silk merchants, growing up pampered and privileged. It was said about him that he squandered his time terribly and outshone all his friends in trivialities. So he wasn’t motivated by any altruistic desire in taking up arms, rather he was filled with dreams of personal glory. In one of his first battles, Francesco, known to his family as Francis, became a prisoner of war. It took nearly a year for his father to arrange his son’s ransom and bring him home. Francis had been injured while being taken captive and had not received medical treatment, so after returning home he was under a doctor’s care and began a slow recovery along with a slow change of heart.
During this time he helped his family by selling their silk and velvet merchandise in the market. One day a beggar came by the Bernardone cloth stall, asking for money. Francis was in the middle of a deal and ignored him initially. But when the deal was done, he ran after the beggar, leaving all his wares behind. He gave the man all the money he had in his pockets. His friends made fun of him; his father got angry. After that Francis began to make a habit when beggars came by, instead of giving money he would take off a piece of his expensive clothing and trade it for the beggar’s torn and tattered clothes.
Also during this time of illness Francis experienced dreams and visions. He often went to an old church at the edge of Assisi to pray, and three times while he was there praying, he heard Christ’s voice speaking from the crucifix at the front of the church saying, “Francis, repair my house, which as you can see, is falling completely to ruin.” After hearing this for the third time, Francis went home, gathered up much of his father’s expensive cloth merchandise. He went out and sold it, giving all the proceeds to the priest of the old church for repairs. When his father realized what had happened, he was furious. When arguments, threats and beatings didn’t deter Francis, his father locked him in the cellar until arrangements were made to start legal proceedings. Francis was hauled into the local cathedral, before the Bishop of Assisi. Things didn’t go well and by the end Francis renounced his father and his family. He stripped off all his clothes and laid them at his father’s feet and said, “Up to today I called you ‘father, but now I can say in all honesty, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.'” Francis walked out the cathedral naked to become a beggar, a hermit, to be alone with God, hoping to learn the secrets which God would reveal to him.
Francis embraced his new life of poverty, living in a very austere manner and even intentionally seeking hardship. He determined to be serious in his study and worship, going as far and trying not to even laugh. Yet despite that, Francis was known as person of infectious joy.
In his time of solitude, Francis focused on deepening his faith and knowledge of God. He longed to imitate Jesus Christ more and more. In the process, the Holy Spirit impressed upon Francis that his life should not only be marked by the practice of poverty, but also by the practice of preaching. So Francis began to wander around the countryside preaching about Jesus. Others began to join him and soon a group of 12 men, calling themselves brothers, shared life together with Francis. Women, too, were fascinated by him, though he rarely looked at them. He chose instead to look at the ground, to keep himself from any chance of lust. At one point, a rich young woman from Assisi named Clare asked to join him and he started an order of women called the Poor Clares, who took vows of poverty and service. The preaching of Franciscan brothers and sisters led to a religious revival that spread over Europe.
His wandering took him to places beyond Europe, where the battles of the Crusades were being fought. In his desire to preach the Good News of Jesus to all people, Francis took the opportunity of brief ceasefires in the midst of bloody battles to cross over to the enemy lines in order to preach to Muslims. One day he even had the opportunity to preach to the Sultan of Egypt. This added another distinctive element to Francis’ ministry – to the practice of poverty and preaching, he added peace-making.
For Francis this was not just peace-making between people, but also between people and creation itself, between people and animals. The stories of Saint Francis include one about a wolf that was terrorizing the small village of Gubbio. At first the wolf was stealing and eating a few sheep at night. After time it became bolder, taking sheep in broad daylight, and then threatening shepherds and travelers coming in and out of the village. Some say the wolf devoured a few small children who did not come home when their mothers called them, but maybe that is just something mothers told their unruly children. The townspeople became fearful and hid inside their homes. After a meeting of the town council, a brave-hearted young man went off in search of Francis for by that time Francis was well known for his love of both people and creatures, and his gift of peacemaking.
When Francis arrived to try to help, a courageous woman pointed Francis in the direction of the wolf’s cave just outside the village. As he got closer, the wolf came out growling, baring its teeth and lunged toward him. Thinking he might die in the attack, Francis made the sign of the cross on himself. Immediately, the wolf quieted. Francis began to scold the wolf. “How dare you scare me like that!” he said. As the wolf cowered back and began to whimper, Francis felt bad. “Oh, brother wolf,” he apologized, “Who am I to scold you, one of God’s creatures. You are only doing as you were made to do. When you are hungry you must eat. You live by the laws of God, the laws of nature.” Then he said to the wolf, “I will make a deal with you! The people of Gubbio will feed you so you will never be hungry again, therefore you shall not harm the people of this village.” He added, “And in exchange, you shall protect these kind people, watching over their village at night.”
At first the people were not sure about this bargain Francis was making for them, but when they saw the wolf wag his tail like a puppy and place his paw into the hand of Brother Francis, as if he wanted to shake on it, everyone heartily agreed. From that day forward the people of Gubbio fed their scraps to the wolf and the wolf patrolled the village at night. Not only did Francis save the village and save the wolf, but still to this day, in the piazza of Gubbio is a statue of Saint Francis and the Wolf, there to remind everyone of this small miracle, proof of God’s promise that there is room for redemption in every heart!
For Francis, nature itself was the mirror of God – all creatures were his brothers and sisters, and even the creatures needed to hear the Gospel. Another story is told that one day while traveling with his companions, Francis asked them to stop along the road. “Wait for me while I preach to my sisters the birds,” he said. Then he stepped out into a meadow where birds filled the surrounding trees. They alighted by his feet, and settled on the grass. Francis began to preach to them, telling them of their loving Creator. He preached that the world was God’s good and beautiful creation that had been marred by the brokenness of human sin. As a result, the world and everything in it was longing to be set right, and God was already fulfilling a plan to restore and renew the world through His Son, Jesus. He told the birds, and the men and women listening as well, that it was the duty of both humans and creatures to praise God for his love and his compassion. Not one bird flew away until Francis was done preaching.
In his mid-40s, Francis became increasingly ill and unable to travel. During his final days, he composed a poem we know as the Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. It is from that Canticle that we get the words of the hymn we sang earlier, “All Creatures of Our God and King”. Francis saw all things as gifts from God, to be welcomed and embraced as brothers and sisters. He did so even with his final words, for it is recorded that he said, “I have done my duty. Now, may Christ let you know yours. Welcome, sister Death.”
Francis understood that his duty was to live a life that embodied Christ’s teachings and dedicated to imitating the life of Jesus. Others have taken up that same duty and the legacy of Francis’ life continues on in the Franciscan movement of today. The three distinctive characteristics persist: Poverty, Preaching, and Peace-making. On this day when we remember and celebrate Francis’ life of faith, I want to invite you to make these three characteristics a part of your lives.
Poverty: This may be the most challenging aspect of Jesus’ life for us to imitate in our modern American context. I don’t think any of us are going to strip naked and walk away from every personal belonging. Yet there are ways in which we can break the hold of material things and of money over our lives. We can choose to simplify our lives. That may mean not getting the newest gadget or upgrade. There are communities where larger items like mowers or large appliances are shared by neighbors who borrow/lend to one another rather than each family having to buy everything for themselves. We can practice sacrificial generosity – sharing our resources with those in need, in crisis. Not just the extra that we feel we can spare, but maybe a gift that actually entails giving up something ourselves. For instance, giving up a dinner out that you normally would have and using that money to buy food to put into the wagons for the Food Pantry. Intentionally deciding not to buy any new items for yourself this winter, but choosing instead to use old clothes, coats, and buy the new coat for someone who does not have one with our gift opportunities.
Preaching: Share the good news of Jesus. Preaching isn’t just a formal time during a worship service. The famous quote about preaching says, “Preach the gospel at all time, and if necessary use words.” We preach with our whole lives, our actions and our words. Like Francis, you can preach to the birds in your yard, preach to your pet. You can tell friends and family about Jesus, tell them about Francis who spent his life imitating Jesus. Announce the good news that God has a plan to save this broken world and to do so God entered into it, to come alongside us and invites us to be participants in the Kingdom to come. He is with us right now, and will never leave us alone.
Peace-making: We have the choice of being people that will break the cycles of conflict and violence. We can do that in our homes and with our families. We can do that across the divides in our nation by listening to one another. We can do that by supporting efforts for sensible limits on weapons that destroy peace. We can do that through supporting efforts towards peace in our wider world. It may be hard to know how to begin or what God is calling you to do as a peace-maker, but when you start with prayer the Holy Spirit will lead you, and give you courage and wisdom and strength. In your bulletins is a card with the prayer that is attributed to St. Francis. The prayer that begins, Make Me an Instrument of Thy peace. I invite you to take that card home and begin to pray that prayer regularly. God will lead you to situations in which you can bring peace.
Pray: Lord Jesus, we are grateful for the example of Giovanni Francesco Bernardone. We, too, want to imitate you, Jesus. Help us to embrace a greater degree of poverty, to be bold in our preaching of your Good News, and to be instruments of your peace to those we meet. We love you, Jesus. Amen.
Closing Song: “All Things Bright and Beautiful”